Harbor Heritage


June 14 – August 23
Harmony by the Bay

July 4
Sturgeon Bay Celebrates!

July 27
Sail Thru the Avenues Sidewalk Sale

August 2–6
Door County Fair

August 3–12
Maritime Week

August 12
Maritime on Madison

August 12–13
Door County Classic & Wooden Boat Festival

September 16
Harvest Fest & Street Art Auction

October 28
Thrills on Third

November 17–19
Christmas by the Bay


Harbor Heritage

by Heather Steinberger
In the heart of Wisconsin’s Door County, Sturgeon Bay carefully preserves its rich yesterday, while celebrating a vibrant, contemporary today.
Sturgeon Bay was our home for nearly 10 years. Our daughter was born there; we kept our first boat at SkipperBud’s, right in the shadow of the historic Michigan Street Bridge; and I launched my independent writing career in our 90-year-old house.

I had the opportunity to revisit my old hometown this past year, and I realized that the resourceful, hardworking place I came to love so much has truly come into its own. Today, the city nurtures an exploding food, art and music scene and an astonishing array of cultural attractions — all while staying connected to its unique roots.  

Keeping the waterfront alive

Those roots are firmly planted along the waterfront. Lumber, farming and fishing carried the day when settlers first made their homes here in the 1850s; however, when the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal opened in 1882, a new industry boomed.

Because the canal ensured easy access to Lake Michigan and Green Bay, thousands of ships no longer had to brave the treacherous, unpredictable Port des Morts (Death’s Door) passage around the peninsula’s tip. Incorporated in 1883, Sturgeon Bay quickly became one of the Great Lakes’ largest shipbuilding centers.

Storied names include Sturgeon Bay Boat Works, founded in 1918 and later known as Palmer Johnson (PJ); Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding; Leathem D. Smith, renamed Christy Corporation in 1948; and Peterson Boat Works, later Peterson Builders. These companies may be gone today, but their legacies endure.

Sturgeon Bay Shipbuilding, Leathem D. Smith and Christy Corp. collectively became Bay Shipbuilding — owned by Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri since 2008 — and the company affectionately known as Bay Ship remains the largest shipyard in the Great Lakes. Its massive East Side facility is always overflowing, with visiting boat nerds and locals alike constantly pausing to see who’s in port.

Business is going so well that the company has been able to take over Palmer Johnson’s buildings, left vacant when the venerable megayacht builder moved operations to Europe in late 2015. Although Sturgeon Bay felt PJ’s loss keenly, Bay Ship stepped in to fill the gap.

“They shut down First Avenue between the two properties and expanded their services,” explains Pam Seiler, executive director at Sturgeon Bay Visitor Center. “They also purchased the old train depot, which has such historic significance. We’re grateful they’re saving it.”

Bay Ship is indeed going strong, according to Mark Felhofer, who co-owns local yacht dealership Bay Marine. Felhofer was born and raised in Sturgeon Bay. He and his brother, Matt, are the second generation at the helm of their family business, which also has a location in Waukegan, Illinois.

“The people who lost their jobs at PJ were able to find new opportunities at the shipyard,” he says. “The Door County Economic Development Council did a great job helping them make the transition.”

Repurposing shipyard property has been a common theme. A few years after Peterson Builders finally closed its doors in 1998, the former East Side yard that produced so many World War II submarine chasers transformed into CenterPointe Marina. Then, in 2013, CenterPointe purchased Great Lakes Yacht Services (the long-ago Palmer Johnson “south yard”) so it could be a full-service boatyard in its own right.

So much has changed; yet, in a way, nothing has. This is still very much a working waterfront. Bay Ship teems with massive lake freighters and working vessels of every stripe, while a busy squadron of tugboats juggles all the ins and outs. Off-duty tugs lie quietly on the West Side near Sawyer Park and the Door County Maritime Museum, along with the U.S. Coast Guard vessels that call the city home.

“Sturgeon Bay was named the 15th Coast Guard City in 2014,” says Amy Paul, the museum’s executive director. “Everyone loves seeing the Selvick tugs, our restored 1919 tug John Purves and the popular Chicago Fire Boat. We’re proud of our heritage here.”

Creating a boater’s haven

Sturgeon Bay has long positioned itself as a boater’s hub; clearly, word has gotten out. The Great Lakes Cruising Club chose the city for its annual rendezvous on July 9 to 13, which means hundreds of boaters will be headed this way this summer. They won’t be disappointed.

“Sturgeon Bay has done a fantastic job with waterfront development on both sides of the bay,” Felhofer says. “People are realizing that this is some of the best boating in the country, with Green Bay and Lake Michigan both accessible in about 15 minutes. We’ve been discovered.”

Several marinas offer transient slips in town. SkipperBud’s operates two of them. SkipperBud’s Harbor Club Marina is at the western foot of the 1930 Michigan Street Bridge, a rare schwerzer-type overhead counterweight bascule bridge that was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. There's also SkipperBud’s Yacht Center at Quarterdeck Marina, also on the West Side. According to Mike Gisch, sales manager, SkipperBud’s can accommodate vessels from 30 to 70 feet.

This end of the bay bristles with docks. Nearby are the Sturgeon Bay Yacht Club and The Yacht Harbor, while CenterPointe Marine lies across the channel in a luxe commercial and residential development appropriately called The Shipyard. The marina can handle boats from 16 to 200 feet.

“We’ve had unprecedented growth in slip sales, service, storage, and boat and yacht sales,” says General Manager Scott Strang. “But we will always find new transients a slip, and we always find a way to get your service work done, no matter how busy we are.”
Friendliness and flexibility are common up and down the bay.

“You’ll want to make plans in advance for a major holiday weekend,” Felhofer advises, “but on a typical summer weekend, there’s ample capacity. Try all the marinas and you’ll find a spot.”

On the East Side, options include the downtown Stone Harbor Resort and Convention Center, home to Harbor Lady Cruises and an appealing dockside tiki bar. There's also Snug Harbor Inn and The Lodge at Leathem Smith’s Madelyn Marina, both near the Highway 42/57 bridge on Memorial Drive. The lodge evokes a genteel, bygone era; Leathem D. Smith built it in 1928 as part of Door County’s first country and yacht club.

A quick word about the bridges: If you want to understand local directions and traffic advice, it helps to know that the three bridges are not the Michigan Street bridge, the Highway 42/57 bridge and the Maple-Oregon Street bridge. They’re simply the old bridge, the big bridge and the new bridge.

Finally, southwest of town on Little Sturgeon Bay is the Wave Pointe Marina & Resort. Here, visiting boaters will find a 124-slip marina with fuel and pump-out services in a weather-safe harbor.

Sturgeon Bay also offers plentiful water access thanks to its many launch ramps. Some of the best choices include Sawyer Park on the West Side, Sunset Park on the East and Olde Stone Quarry Park at the mouth of Sturgeon Bay. Farther from town are the six-lane boat launch at Robert M. Carmody Park in Union Township and the multiple-ramp Potawatomi State Park launch in Sawyer Harbor.

The “it” place to be

Sturgeon Bay is all about accessibility. From the marinas, hotels, and bed and breakfasts, you can easily reach the East Side’s historic shopping districts on Third and Jefferson, as well as the quickly redeveloping West Side.

“I love the walkability of it all,” Seiler says. “The downtown bridge-to-bridge loop is only 1.2 miles. Everything’s close.”
With a laugh, she adds, “Just be sure you know the bridge schedule.”

Those interested in taking a stroll should investigate the city’s Museum Walk. First, at the 20,000-square-foot Door County Maritime Museum, you can tour the John Purves and see a variety of permanent exhibitions and a rotating show titled “Telegraphs of the Past.”

“We had all these wonderful artifacts that we didn’t want just sitting in the archives,” Paul says. “So we used them to create a wonderland.”

On August 12-13 this year, the Door County Maritime Museum will host its annual Door County Classic and Wooden Boat Festival, complete with the Sikaflex Boatbuilding Challenge and Race, People’s Choice awards, Sturgeon Bay Yacht Club Venetian Night parade, fireworks, food, entertainment and more. A “Maritime on Madison” street festival adjacent to the museum adds to the fun.


“They put on a great show,” Felhofer says.

It’s about to get even better. At press time, the museum had raised roughly half the funds necessary to construct an iconic square observation tower. Paul says she hopes to see the fundraising campaign reach its goal next spring.

“The 11th story will be an open observation deck, and the floor below will be fully enclosed with windows,” she says. “We’re looking forward to having more exhibition and conference space, offering continuing education and STEM programs for all ages, and telling more stories.”

Next is the Miller Art Museum, part of the Door County Library on Fourth Avenue. The museum features changing exhibitions and works from its permanent collection, which includes the late Gerhard Miller’s watercolor and egg tempera paintings. From July 22 to September 5 the museum will honor renowned local artist Charles “Chick” Peterson in an exhibition titled, “Charles L. Peterson: An Artist’s Life’s Work.”

The third stop is the Door County Historical Museum, also on Fourth Avenue, which the Chicago Tribune once named “the best small museum in the Midwest.” After that, consider popping into the Sturgeon Bay Visitor Center (SBVC) to pick up a map of the city’s self-guided walking tour.

“We have 121 historically designated properties,” Seiler says. “The city now has a guided history tour, as well: On Tuesdays starting at SBVC, and on Saturdays starting at the Door County Historical Museum.”

Many of those historic properties are now nurturing artists. Last year, Popelka Trenchard Glass, the Margaret Lockwood Gallery and the Holiday Music Motel joined forces to form the Steel Bridge Creative District on Second Avenue. On nearby Third Avenue, the arts are well represented, from the Third Avenue Playhouse to the ever-expanding Artists Guild.

Sometimes the art is outdoors. Sturgeon Bay has become famous for its summertime street art, and for the second consecutive year, “Benches by the Bay” are on display. Local artists design the benches, which will be auctioned off at the Harvest Festival in September.

The city’s culinary treasures are keeping pace with its artistic ones, too. Don’t miss Crate, a hotspot for sushi, seafood and steak that opened in 2016. The innovative sushi rolls and craft cocktails will bring you back time after time. Then there’s The Brick Lot Pub & Grill, formerly Van’s. According to Seiler, the new owner worked with a Main Street Community designer to open up half of the building’s front wall with a sliding glass door. Now, on warm summer days, this open-air experience is hard to beat.

There’s something for everyone: Waterfront dining at Stone Harbor, Italian cuisine at Trattoria Dal Santo, elaborate brunches at the Inn at Cedar Crossing, and food-truck burritos at Nistebox. If you’re craving pizza, head over to the West Side. A couple of years ago, Sonny’s Pizzeria moved into a long-vacant Applebee’s restaurant next to SkipperBud’s. They unveiled a new patio in May and the place is jumping.

Much of the excitement in town is now centered on the West Side. You can still climb the hill to Scaturo’s for an old-fashioned Door County fish boil, but other choices await. There’s Kitty O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, Hot Tamales for authentic Mexican fare, “gourmet bites and brews” at the gracious Bluefront Cafe, and of course the ever-reliable Greystone Castle.

“It hasn’t changed in 20 years,” Felhofer says. “It still has fantastic food. If the fishermen all eat there, you know it’s great!” 

Sadly, the original Galley Cafe on Madison Avenue is gone, along with the Harbor Place Shoppes. They were lost in a fire in 2014. But, like the proverbial phoenix, this little corner of the city has risen from the ashes.

“The new Bay Lofts building is a major part of the West Side redevelopment project,” Seiler says. “Bay Shore Outfitters is on the ground level, and above are 37 luxury apartments.”

“It’s gorgeous,” Paul says. “We have an On Deck outlet store on the West Side now, too. With Sonny’s expanding and Kitty’s great outdoor patio, it’s an exciting time.”

Come together

Not that Sturgeon Bay ever needs an excuse to celebrate, in addition to the Classic and Wooden Boat Festival and Maritime Week, annual events include the Fine Art Fair, the Lighthouse Festival, the Jefferson Street Celebration of Summer, the Norman Rockwell-esque Door County Fair and the acclaimed Steel Bridge Songfest, co-founded in 2005 by musician Pat MacDonald (of 1980s Timbuk3 fame).

Then there are fishing tournaments, sidewalk sales, Fourth of July fireworks and revelry, regular outdoor entertainment at venues like Sonny’s and Stone Harbor, and the Harmony By the Bay outdoor concert series.

“Martin Park is absolutely full of people for those concerts,” Felhofer says.

“They’re nice community get-togethers,” Seiler agrees. “You can enjoy food, wine, beer, even paella.”

She encourages boaters to walk over to the Saturday farmers market, as well.

“It’s a great way to stock up on provisions,” she says. “You’ll find fresh veggies, cheese curds and a fantastic egg roll vendor.”
For provisioning, the Healthy Way market is also worth a stop. It outgrew its little green cottage on the West Side and moved into the Sturgeon Bay Florist building a little more than a year ago. It’s the city’s independent and successful answer to Natural Grocers and Whole Foods.

Of course, you’ll also want to spend plenty of time on and around the water. Popular outings include Sawyer Harbor, Potawatomi State Park, Little Harbor, Little Sturgeon and Basin Island, also called Snake Island (if you’re out that way, try to hit the Sherwood Point Grill for refreshments and live entertainment; it’s a hidden gem). To the north, Egg Harbor is a rollicking good time on summer weekends.

“From Sturgeon Bay, great beaches are just a half-hour away by boat,” Felhofer advises. “I always tell people to visit for at least 10 days. That way, you can explore the city and still have time to run out to Chambers Island or even up to Washington Island.

“Bring your bikes, running shoes, kayaks and SUPs,” he adds. “This is going to be a fantastic summer. We’ve had a warm spring, the water temperatures are shooting up and the beaches will be packed. If you don’t have a game plan yet, don’t worry. When you get to your marina, just ask. There are so many neat things to do.”

And at every turn, you’ll experience how yesterday and today can blend together. Seamlessly, profoundly and beautifully — hand in hand. 


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